In ANEW Magazine
Column: Around the Table
Related recipe: Perfect Pot Roast
Lovable, charismatic moptops from the British Isles? No, they’re not the Beatles – they’re Highland Cattle, a fixture of the Scottish landscape for some 15 hundred years. And you can meet them at Fountain Prairie Farms and Inn, a bed and breakfast and so much more, owned by Dorothy and John Priske.
Just outside Columbus, about 35 miles northeast of Madison, 250 of these magnificently shaggy heritage-breed beasts roam the Priske’s grassy pastures. There the Priskes have poured their passion for environmentally sustainable farming into lovingly restoring the 1899 Victorian farmhouse that now serves as the B&B, as well as 28 acres of tal-grass prairie and 35 acres of wetland. Fountain Prairie is also home to some 50 hogs – their meat appears on the B&B menu, and you can’t eat more local than that.
For 18 years, the Priskes have been a mainstay at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Their offerings include pork, and, of course, dry-aged, grass-fed, grain-finished Highland beef – the same beef served up at L’Etoile, the Greenbush Bar and several other fine dining establishments.
The inn and farms keep the Priskes, married 33 years, busy full-time. Dorothy once worked for a stockbroker in Madison, but she much prefers farm living. “All of our stock now is four-legged,” she says with a laugh.
VVK: Have you always been into sustainable agriculture?
DP: We’ve done a total switch. We used to do industrial row-crop farming, soybeans and corn. But things didn’t seem right to us anymore. After both of our dogs died of cancer in the same year, we thought, oh! – they’re the canary in the mine shaft.
VVK: How do Highland Cattle fit in with your goal of a more natural farm environment?
DP: We had to decide, if we have everything in grass, what’s going to eat the grass? That’s how we came upon the Highlands. They’re known for cleaning up brushy vegetation. They have a tougher tongue and throat than other kinds of cattle. They’ve been known to take down small trees!
They have two layers of hair, so they don’t need housing in winter. They get really shaggy in the winter. They look almost prehistoric when it snows. It doesn’t melt – it just sits on their back. And as a result of the extra layer of hair, they don’t put on an outside layer of fat. Of course, they make a wonderful attraction for a bed and breakfast. On a foggy, misty morning, they look so cool.
VVK: How would you describe the Highlands’ personality?
DP: They’re just so sweet. They seem smarter than Holsteins – though I shouldn’t say that in Wisconsin! Even the bulls are docile. One is named Lover Boy, and there’s a new bull named Rohan, a handsome fella. There’s Daisy. One of her horns goes up, and the other down. We call her “Crazy Daisy.”
The lead animal is a really nice cow named Gretchen. Everybody knows Gretchen is boss! She drinks first. When it’s time to move them, she leads the way. She breaks up fights between the cows. We think she’s even intervened to keep us from harm from an animal that’s being aggressive towards us. She gives them a nudge and gets between them and us.
Those are genetics we don’t want to pass on to the breed. When something like that happens, they end up in the freezer within a few weeks.
VVK: Is slaughtering difficult, emotionally?
DP: Yes. Yes. It’s not as hard now that there are more of them. But number 39 was special. And I cried the entire week. They’re a heritage breed, and the way to preserve them is to eat them. And it is difficult. But we know that that’s their purpose. We don’t name the cows that we’re going to slaughter, so that we become less involved. But they are around for at least two years. You get to know them, and some are friendlier than others.
VVK: Does the meat taste different from regular beef?
DP: The flavor is incredible. The animals older, more mature than at the supermarket. And what really brings the flavor up is dry aging for 21 days. Excess moisture evaporates, and the flavor is really intensified. The texture is different, because enzymes break down the muscle and make is tender. Wet aging is what supermarkets use. It’s packed in Cryovac, so the moisture doesn’t have anywhere to go. Wet aged beef is – ‘mush’ is the only word that comes to mind.
VVK: What do you love most about Fountain Prairie?
DP:We like knowing who eats our meat. We really enjoy working together and working at home. We adore the animals. We were talking this morning about how much we love the smell of cow breath. Kind of sweet, warm. I wonder if it makes a difference that they don’t eat silage and animal products like conventional cattle. But I’m not going to go around sniffing cows!
I love watching the wildlife – the waterfowl and deer. The other day I took a walk with the dog. The entire herd followed us. I like to go out and look at the cows, just to see who wants to come over and talk to us. Who wants a scratch.
VVK: What do you see for the future?
DP:We’re really encouraged about prospects for natural beef. Sales have increased 20 percent in the last year, which I think is a really good sign. Natural means no animal by-products or antibiotics in the feed. No hormone implants. We did all those things years ago.
I don’t know if we’ll go for organic certification or not. There are a lot of costs involved, and the federal regulations have been watered down. I believe in the importance of local and sustainable over organic.